Earth’s long-term climate stabilized by clouds

By Colin Goldblatt, Victoria L. McDonald and Kelly E. McCusker


The Sun was dimmer earlier in Earth’s history, but glaciation was rare in the Precambrian: this is the ‘faint young Sun problem’. Most solutions rely on changes to the chemical composition of the atmosphere to compensate via a stronger greenhouse effect, whereas physical feedbacks have received less attention. We perform global climate model experiments, using two versions of the Community Atmosphere Model, in which a reduced solar constant is offset by higher CO2. Model runs corresponding to past climate show a substantial decrease in low clouds and hence planetary albedo compared with present, which contributes 40% of the required forcing to offset the faint Sun. Through time, the climatically important stratocumulus decks have grown in response to a brightening Sun and decreasing greenhouse effect, driven by stronger cloud-top radiative cooling (which drives low cloud formation) and a stronger inversion (which sustains clouds against dry air entrainment from above). We find that systematic changes to low clouds have had a major role in stabilizing climate through Earth’s history, which demonstrates the importance of physical feedbacks on long-term climate stabilization, and a smaller role for geochemical feedbacks.

This article appeared on the Nature Geosciences website at